June 6, 2016

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Learn lessons from safety – it’s time to focus on health

Professor David Fishwick, Chief Medical Adviser to the Health and Safety Executive in Great Britain explains why the effective management of workplace health risks is just as important as addressing the potential immediacy of safety issues.

HSE statistics on the health of Great Britain’s workforce paint a concerning picture; but let’s look at the potential for what could be achieved.

The most recent statistics on safety show that over a 20-year period there has been an important downward trend in fatal injuries to workers. Taking an integrated approach to safety management, identifying appropriate solutions and ensuring that these are consistently applied is proving not only effective for business performance but is also ensuring that workplaces are safer than ever before.

The management of health at work has rarely been accorded the same priority, and yet ill health impacts not only on individual workers, but also on their families, friends and loved ones, their workplace and its productivity and, ultimately, wider society.

We could anticipate a similar success for health risk management by applying the lessons learned from integrated safety principles. This is recognised by the Health and Safety Executive’s new strategy, Helping Great Britain Work Well, which includes tackling ill health as one of its six strategy priorities.

The case for better health management

Data sources confirm the huge numbers of short term and longer term chronic ill health problems that are estimated to be attributed to work. However, in terms of time and effort invested we probably vastly under-represent health risk management in the context of health and safety.

Although statistics show that there are around 13,000 deaths each year from work-related lung disease and cancers caused by exposures at work, there has been generally slow progress towards proactively managing these risks, although examples of good practice are emerging continually.

Chronic health conditions such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and silicosis are also still too commonly seen as a consequence of harmful workplace exposures. The legacy of historic exposures can often mask the need for action today. Can we be truly confident that our current approach isn’t leading another generation to early death, suffering and harm?  Current ‘exposures’ at work are causing chronic ill health with around 80% of the new work-related conditions reported in 2014/15 attributable to musculoskeletal disorders or to stress, depression or anxiety.

A shift in focus

Our understanding of health risk factors in the workplace has improved over recent years, and there is growing recognition that some work activities can cause, or be a major contributor to, illnesses when previously these links had not been made.

During the development of the Helping Great Britain work well strategy, stakeholders from across the health and safety system recognised the need to be clear about the terrible impact of occupational ill health. We are collectively, therefore, in a good place to proceed with activities to deliver health successes.

However, various areas remain poorly understood and thus poorly appreciated. As the boundaries between ‘work life’ and ‘home life’ become more porous and less well defined, we need to better understand and anticipate how these influence health risk management at work. It is no longer reasonable simply to blame non-work life for various illnesses, as in reality these territorial distinctions are much less clear. Whereas ‘work life’ could once have been said to begin and end at the factory gate, the use of modern technology and more flexible ways of working mean that, nowadays, health risks and their associated challenges are moved continually between home and work. Similarly, strong support offered by family and friends often benefits the workplace directly, yet this potentially very important contribution, in light of the ageing workforce, is not yet well understood.

The way forward for better workplace health

Clare Forshaw, Health Specialist at HSE’s Health and Safety Laboratory (HSL) says that “whilst there is now strong evidence to show that work is good for you, the risks at work for many health conditions are often still not reduced sufficiently to prevent harm”.

I would suggest that effectively managing health at work need be no more challenging or expensive than managing safety.  But since health risks and their consequences may not be immediately apparent, our understanding of potential harm to health is not as mature as our understanding of accident prevention. Subsequently, health issues are often not addressed as thoroughly as they might be.

Redressing the balance and improving health at work requires a step change in our thinking about health and safety; they should be considered collectively rather than individually. In both cases, attending to the hazards and risks is the first step.

It must be recognised that the development of chronic ill health is common in the working population, and that properly managing health risks at work is a starting point. However, an enlightened view would incorporate thinking about people in the whole world they inhabit, and would realise that a more comprehensive approach to health and wellbeing will have the most impact on the future health of our workforce.

Workers should be engaged and involved in developing sensible approaches to health management at work, with the human component central to any developments. For example, it would not be sensible to introduce wellbeing at work initiatives without prior assessment of the job, and its associated hazards and strategies and actions to reduce risks. Similarly, a sensible approach would be to develop policies and procedures that are meaningful now to your workforce, and not to an ideal or hypothetical workforce of the future. The successful Total Worker health programme in the US is an advocate of such an approach.

It is now is the time that we must actively invest in health at work, and to integrate a multidisciplinary approach to the protection of workers in every workplace. Taking a proactive and balanced approach to the management of health and safety at work, in which each is treated with equal priority, is the best way to ensure that all workers are protected from both preventable injuries and illnesses.

Find out more

There are obvious benefits for larger organisations to influence a robust health management system across supply chains, and for companies to establish ownership of health management and particular solutions.

To help workplaces to deal with health issues, HSE has developed a health specific management maturity model, which focusses on a number of generic leading indicators for a robust health management approach.

Professor David Fishwick and HSE Health Specialist Clare Forshaw will be speaking at Safety & Health Expo in the Occupational Health Theatre. Register for free entry today. David and Clare will also be on the HSL’s Stand R2100 at Safety & Health Expo.

At the IOSH Annual Conference 2016 (London ExCeL, 21-22 June), Professor David Fishwick and HSE Health Specialist Clare Forshaw will share the insights they have gained in building a mature approach to health risk management. You can learn about a new approach to ‘Complete Worker Health’ that is being adopted both in the UK and internationally, and how your organisation can make the ‘health journey’ from taking a reactive approach to adopting a proactive, and engaged leadership approach to health risk management.


What makes us susceptible to burnout?

In this episode  of the Safety & Health Podcast, ‘Burnout, stress and being human’, Heather Beach is joined by Stacy Thomson to discuss burnout, perfectionism and how to deal with burnout as an individual, as management and as an organisation.

We provide an insight on how to tackle burnout and why mental health is such a taboo subject, particularly in the workplace.


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Tamara Parris
Tamara Parris
7 years ago

Great posting David.Would be nice if you could please share with our EHS membersI blieve they would find it interesting;